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Sherwin Banda, right, is the President of African Travel, a luxury tour company that offers LGBTQ friendly 'Pride Safaris' to the continent. He is pictured with his family.Handout

Sherwin Banda wants the LGBTQ community abroad to know that Africa is ready to welcome them. “Change is happening, and our guests are able to travel there confidently and safely,” says Banda, the President of African Travel, a luxury tour company which operates bespoke excursions to the continent.

The South African native, who identifies as gay, Jewish and Black, is wearing a traditional Dashiki shirt on the afternoon of an interview with The Globe and Mail. When he speaks in his lilting Afrikaans-inflected accent, his love of the continent, and the work he is doing to open pathways to travellers, is evident.

When asked to reflect on his childhood in his country, during which there was apartheid, Banda says it was “probably the most tumultuous time of my life … growing up all I wanted to do was leave and escape.” But today, South Africa is the most progressive on the continent in terms of the legislated rights and freedoms of the LGBTQ community – to the extent that it is now known as the Rainbow Nation.

The happily married father of one says his country “is a part of my soul and I am tied to it, and it’s the story I want people to see and hear when they think about Africa and the hope that it actually can be for the world.”

Sherwin Banda, who identifies as gay, Jewish and Black, wearing a traditional Dashiki shirt.Handout

African Travel’s aptly named Pride Safaris are a concrete expression of that hope. On the surface, the carefully crafted excursions look like any other African trip of a lifetime: five-star luxury lodges with exceptional culinary programs, drives into national parks to witness the “Big 5″ in their natural habitat, hot air balloon rides over vast landscapes. But underneath, the seamless exterior is an ongoing effort to shield LGBTQ guests from potential harm.

“We hand select camps and lodges that have not only completed the sensitivity training that we put forth, but they have done the work to offer experiences that are welcoming and friendly and inclusive to the LGBTQ community, and in some cases have staff employed at that camp from the community to service our guests.”

But while he hopes Africa “is on everyone’s travel list, and if they haven’t thought about Africa that they might consider it,” he expresses that point with a melancholy that betrays his optimism – suggesting he knows the odds are stacked against him.

“It is an ongoing struggle. There are many reasons why Africa as a continent seems to be lagging behind when it comes to the rest of the world with regard to LGBTQ travel. But the number one reason is that we have antiquated colonial laws still on the books.”

The Canadian government’s travel health and safety website cautions that trans and gender non-conforming individuals “might face entry restrictions into some countries that do not recognize your gender.” It further warns that “some countries may use laws related to ‘vagrancy’, ‘public nuisance’ or ‘public morals’ to criminalize LGBTQ2 people.”

A quick google search of the question, “Is Africa safe for LGBTQ travellers?” uncovers more than 100 million results – scores confirming a belief that going to the continent comes with a high degree of risk for the community. According to Human Rights Watch, “of the 69 countries that criminalize same-sex relations, 33 are in Africa.”

Further, a study undertaken by journalists and travel bloggers Asher and Lyric Fergusson, resulting in the LGBTQ+ Travel Safety Index this year, says eight of the 20 most threatening countries to queer travellers are situated in Africa. Nigeria is cited as one of the worst offenders: In spite of its national motto – “Unity and faith, peace and progress” – the country has enacted extreme anti-gay penalties, including lengthy prison stays and in some cases capital punishment.

In this context, while Banda’s work may be driven by honourable motives, economics are likely to be the most powerful factor driving support for LGBTQ travellers. Tourism accounts for 3.7 per cent of South Africa’s GDP. For Tanzania, a popular destination for safari-seekers and also among the least gay-friendly destinations, that number nearly triples to 10.6 per cent.

Jeffrey Solomon (front right) with family and friends on a pilot safari for same-sex families.Handout

Africa “is a destination that is so heavily dependent on tourism. It is literally their lifeblood. … Now South African tourism is saying the LGBT market is one of the pillars that they are going to invest in for travel, and it’s a market that they want to increase.”

And eyes on the LGBTQ market in the continent is not exclusive to South Africa: “When you talk to people on the ground, there is a grassroots awakening happening across Africa,” Banda says. In the last decade, countries including Mozambique and Seychelles decriminalized same-sex relationships, and in 2019, Botswana legalized same-sex marriage.

“The continent is embracing and realizing that in order to be attractive as a destination for inclusive travel, they have to relax their laws, because already from a customs point of view and a grassroots point of view, the change has been happening.”

While it remains to be seen how willing LGBTQ travellers are to embrace Africa, Banda, for his part, is determined to lead by example. Until a greater measure of African legislation and public attitudes have shifted in favour of the queer community, he feels confident that the bubble of his own making can provide the community with a pathway into, and safely out of, Africa.

“I travel as a gay man. I make no secret that I am an African, Black, Jewish man and the welcome that I get and that my family gets when we travel together … there is a genuine sense of hospitality.

“And that African welcome? It’s like nothing else than can be replicated around the world.”